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November 3, 2016

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China phone makers look smart in sales league tables

THE “smart talk” last weekend was over smartphones, after International Data Corp (IDC) reported that Oppo and Vivo had overtaken Huawei and Xiaomi to become the best-selling mobile phone brands in China in the third quarter.

Oppo and Vivo, both owned by Guangzhou-based BBK Electronics, ranked first and second respectively in the IDC domestic rankings, surprising both the media and the information technology industry.

It’s another sign of the emerging importance of domestic producers in the world’s biggest mobile phone market.

In the third quarter, China smartphone sales grew 5.8 percent from a year earlier to 108.1 million units. The top five vendors were Oppo, with a 17.5 percent market share, Vivo with a 16.7 percent share, Huawei, with 15.7 percent, Xiaomi with 8.7 percent and Apple with 7.1 percent, US-based research firm IDC reported.

Huawei sales rose 23 percent on the year, while Oppo surged 122 percent in the same period.

As a technology reporter, I am not as interested in numerical rankings as I am in the emerging muscle of domestic technology in a market so long dominated by foreign brands. It’s a sign that Chinese firms are coming into their own, becoming more aggressive and innovative.

Just look at Oppo’s rapid battery-charging technology and improved camera processor, ZTE’s naked-eye 3D photography and display, Huawei’s dual camera with Leica design, Xiaomi’s “coolest-looking” concept model and LeEco’s eye-catching debut of its US store.

Indeed, the IT scene this autumn is radically different from that of a year ago, when domestic handsets suffered from sameness in design and lack of innovation. Firms like Xiaomi and Huawei used to spend a lot of time focusing on features of Qualcomm’s processor and Sharp’s screen, which are used in various models.

A change in thinking has been ringing up booming sales.

“Oppo’s success is not something that was achieved overnight,” said Xiaohan Tay, a senior analyst at IDC. “It has key strengths, such as its VOOC fast charging technology and the elegant design of its phones. This, coupled with its aggressive marketing tactics, helped it succeed in the marketplace.”

The July figures announced by Oppo, a company not prone to talking about such figures, showed 7 million units of its R9 model sold, meaning a sale of an average 1.1 units each second.

In the upgraded R9s model released last month, Oppo has a camera senor co-developed with Sony, featuring faster focus and better performance in dark environments. It’s Oppo’s first venture into the up-steam camera segment. The preorder sales of the new R9s “doubled” that of R9, said Oppo without revealing more figures.

Diversified strength

Vivo, which offers professional and “lossless” music experiences on its smartphone, has announced a marketing linkup with the National Basketball Association to target sports-loving young consumers.

To some extent, both Oppo and Vivo have built up their strength in Tier 3-5 cities – smaller places not as deeply penetrated by big brands.

On a recent journey to Xining, capital of the far western province of Qinghai, I was surprised to find the two brands being aggressively marketed in off-line stores. In the downtown area, Oppo and Vivo had at least five times more retail outlets than any other brands.

The battery problems of Samsung, the world’s top smartphone brand, and the short supply of Apple iPhone 7 models are expected to open wider opportunities for Chinese-brand smartphones.

Samsung halted sales of its flagship Galaxy Note 7 model in China last month, following a global recall of 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7s over exploding batteries.

The brands expected to benefit from the Samsung crisis include Apple, with its newly released iPhone 7, and Chinese brands Huawei, Vivo and Oppo, Taiwan-based research firm TrendForce said.

As Android phone makers, Chinese brands may benefit more directly from Samsung’s recall.

Xiaomi released its Mi Note 2 and concept model Mi Mix last month.

Xiaomi Mi Note 2, with a similar look to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7, was jokingly called “the unexploded Samsung Galaxy Note 7,” with its nice design and big screen. The more eye-catching Mi Mix, with a bezel-less design, is being hailed as “the coolest-looking phone of 2016” and has even been called “Xiaomi’s iPhone 8.” The accolades highlight the strength of Xiaomi’s innovation capacity for a company once best known only for strong online marketing and sales.

Talking about core-tech products, ZTE last week unveiled a smartphone that supports 3D photography and naked-eye 3D views. It debuted at a prices of 2,999 yuan (US$448). The new Axon 7 Max is also the first 3D-featured smartphone model made by a mainstream phone vendor.

ZTE expects 3D and virtual reality to become mainstream digital entertainment formats in 4G and coming 5G eras. It has cooperated with several content and game partners to offer consumers full-scale 3D experiences, covering 3D picture shooting and transformation from 2D to 3D formats. It features a dual-camera for 3D photography, over 60 3D games and more than 1,000 3D programs.

LeEco, the Chinese technology company, is setting out to become a household name with smartphones and flat-screen TVs that undercut the prices of Apple, Google, Samsung and other industry stalwarts. LeEco heralded its entrance into the US market last month with an online store and smartphone, TV and online video services.

It may sound “crazy” to try to compete against Apple, Amazon and Google on their home turf, said Jia Yueting, LeEco’s founder and chairman. However, he added, LeEco has its own unique ecosystem and advantages.

Huawei is expected to continue expanding into the higher-end of the market with its P9 and business-oriented Mate models. The latest versions are scheduled to be released later this month.

“It’s important for vendors to focus on investment in technology in order to have a key flagship product that stands out in the market, getting people to talk about its brand,” said IDC’s Tay.


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